Two weeks ago, the online academic journal Transatlantica posted my essay "Worlds within Worlds: Audiences, Jargon, and North America Comics Discourse." (My essay is here; the others in the issue, all worth reading, are here.) I begin "Worlds Within Worlds" by charting the American reception to the English-language version of Thierry Groensteen's The System of Comics (University Press of Mississippi, 2007), and in the process summarize Leonard Rifas' review of System in The Comics Journal #284 (July 2007).
I refer readers to the entire essay for both my summary of Rifas' review and my own position, but there is one error I'd like to correct here. Twice, I make reference to Rifas using the word "gibberish" to describe System and difficult academic prose (specifically, I write "that doesn't mean that the jargon is, to use Rifas' word, 'gibberish'" and "Rifas' dismissal of jargon as 'gibberish'"), both of which don't honor Rifas' original use of the word. Here's an e-mail from Leonard correcting my mistake:
I appreciated your article "Worlds within Worlds: Audiences, Jargon, and North American Comics Discourse" in the new issue of Transatlantica except for those places in which my name came up as someone who supposedly "despises" academic language and regards Groensteen's The System of Comics as "gibberish."
I used the word "gibberish" in my review of The System of Comics only once, when I claimed that Groensteen's book was, appearances notwithstanding, NOT gibberish: "I attest that read three times slowly and in its full context, this ceases to be gibberish."
The idea that as a Grothian anti-academic I "despise" Groensteen's "lit-crit prose and jargon" doesn't capture the primary mood I experienced when reading his book, which was disappointment. The part of my review in which I address the question of style most directly comes near the end:
"The possibility finally occurred to me that Groensteen takes pleasure from writing in this style. By the end of the book, I had begun to imagine that in its original language, this text may even have an effervescent sparkle that disappears like the shine off a drying pebble when reduced to a literal retelling in English. If that seems overly generous, I do not care to know otherwise."
In the years since reviewing The System of Comics for The Comics Journal, my appreciation for Groensteen's achievement in that book has grown, though not enough to make me want to reread it.
I apologize to Leonard for getting his use of "gibberish" wrong. I'll leave it up to other readers to determine if I misrepresented the mood of his review--it still reads to me like a cry of frustration as much as an expression of disappointment--but I'm grateful for his input.
In "Worlds within Worlds," I argue that comics academics should write in an accessible, jargon-light style, and issues of terminology and accessibility continue to cause friction among critics and scholars. Last weekend, I attended Ohio State University's Festival of Cartoon Art, where I heard an entertaining, enlightening and jargon-heavy paper by Toni Pape (University of Montreal) titled "Knowing One's Limits" Metalepsis, Pseudo-liveness and Mediality in 'Sculoa di fumetto' (Rat-Man)." In the question-and-answer session following Pape's presentation, critic R.C. Harvey leaned into his microphone and asked Pape a very simple question: "Are you serious?" Isaac Cates captured the moment in his sketchbook:
Harvey then briefly complained about Pape's use of jargon--without, alas, saying anything about Pape's intelligent reading of the self-reflexivity of Leo Ortolani's Rat-Man comic. In my Transatlantica piece, I express hope that we can find a language for comics studies that is both academically rigorous and open to readers, fans and critics (like Harvey) outside the academy. Am I hoping in vain?
Please go read Isaac's reports on the OSU festival here.